If 20 games represent the typical time frame for an NBA team to develop realistic expectations for what it can be and how far it can go, then count the Miami Heat among those waiting for an extension.
"We need more time," star guard Dwyane Wade insisted. "We aren't there yet."
Yet, there is more potential danger ahead.
After opening the season with 14 of their first 19 games at home, the Heat have started a stretch in which they will play 21 of their next 32 on the road. To this point, no team has had more rest and fewer road games than Miami, but it hasn't completely capitalized on the opportunity for momentum.
Sitting at 12-8 a quarter of the way through the season and possessing the league's second-best defense would normally indicate the Heat are trending in a productive direction -- especially considering they already have endured a key trade, a six-game absence of their most productive reserve and the loss of their best perimeter defender for two weeks due to injury.
But peel back a few layers, and it quickly becomes clear the Heat are a vulnerable team that is facing as many questions today as they did when training camp opened nearly three months ago. Issues that have been quietly simmering behind the scenes are now boiling over publicly as the Heat enter Friday's game against the Indiana Pacers (7 p.m. ET on ESPN and WatchESPN), two nights after a blowout loss in Charlotte.
Franchise anchors Wade and Chris Bosh -- who each earn at least $20 million this season -- each have demanded to be more of the focal point in the offense, with Wade suggesting after the loss to the Hornets that there was too much "freelance" basketball and little commitment to a system. For weeks now, there has been no consistency within the offense and instead stretches when coach Erik Spoelstra has worked to appease struggling or disgruntled key players.
Hassan Whiteside is the latest example.
A turbulent stretch for the defensive stalwart took another bumpy turn on Thursday, when Whiteside sat out practice in Indiana with a sprained ankle sustained during Wednesday's loss in Charlotte. The injury leaves Whiteside's status in question for Friday's game at a time when the Heat still don't seem to have a definitive plan for him within the offensive scheme.
A week ago, Whiteside told reporters the team doesn't run any plays for him. Then he was benched for the final 14 minutes of Monday's loss to a shorthanded and undersized Washington Wizards team that primarily played four guards and a small forward and torched Miami for a season-high 114 points. The Heat's initial adjustment to then make Whiteside more of an offensive priority early in the Charlotte game backfired. He committed six of Miami's 18 turnovers in a lackluster performance that left Wade and Bosh questioning the structure and Spoelstra bemoaning the team's overall effort.
"We didn't impose our will," Spoelstra said in a familiar assessment after the Heat's sixth loss of the season by double figures. "We just have to get to work. At this point, I don't know. I just have to get into the film and see. Each game is different."
Heading into the season, there was widespread optimism about the Heat finally being able to utilize their starting lineup of Wade, Bosh, Whiteside, Luol Deng and Goran Dragic. Chemistry between that unit never materialized last season, when the Heat acquired Dragic in a February trade hours before they learned Bosh would miss the rest of the season for treatment of a blot clot on his lung.
But since the start of this season, the Heat have been toiling through varying degrees of adjustments. Although Wade scored at least 20 points in each of the first five games for the first time since the 2009-10 season, Dragic sputtered from the outset. Then Wade's production dipped as Whiteside and Bosh gained a rhythm over the next stretch of games. But when Dragic's struggles persisted, the Heat worked to help the former All-NBA playmaker establish a comfort zone at a more up-tempo pace that was evident in consecutive victories against Oklahoma City and Cleveland last week.
And just as Dragic and Wade got their collective games going, Whiteside and Bosh diminished. Now the Heat face the Pacers looking to avoid their first three-game losing streak of the season. Indiana has won eight straight home games against Miami, including a 90-87 victory on Nov. 6, when Wade had nine points.
"I think by now we should know our game. We should know what we want to get to, especially on the road. We talk about things, but we don't do it. We've had enough conversations." Chris Bosh
"I think by now we should know our game," said Bosh, who is averaging 16.9 points this season and shooting a career-worst 44.2 percent from the field. "We should know what we want to get to, especially on the road. We talk about things, but we don't do it. We've had enough conversations."
Bosh flat-out called for more structure in the offense.
"From day to day, we don't know where the ball is going," Bosh told reporters after Miami was held to a season-low 81 points on Wednesday for the second time this season. "In this system, I have to have trust. The ball has to move. I want to be able to go out and play team ball. We're capable. But sometimes we just fall back. It goes up and down -- way down. When we have a bad game, it's a stinker."
Maintaining pace and production have been problematic for the Heat, who ranks 27th among 30 teams in scoring at just 96 points per game. Miami also plays at the fifth-slowest pace among all teams, an issue that was supposed to be addressed by the addition of Dragic. But those numbers dip drastically on the road, where Miami is averaging just 89 points and shooting only 43.1 percent.
Among the bigger concerns have been the Heat's dreadful 3-point shooting, which ranks 27th in the NBA at six makes per game and is 28th in connection percentage at 31.3. Also bogging down the offense is the league's second-worst bench, which is providing just 25.2 points a game.
It's been an across-the-board dilemma for Miami. In addition to Bosh shooting a career-low percentage from the field, Dragic's 11.3 points a game are his fewest as a full-time starter, while Wade's 29.5 minutes are a career low and his scoring average is under 19 points for the first time since his rookie season in 2003. Even Deng, who returned Wednesday from a hamstring injury that kept him out six games, is on pace for career-low numbers in points, assists, rebounds and shooting percentage this season.
"We just have to find that 'it' together as a team," Wade said. "It's going to take a while for us to decide how we want this season to go. If we want it to go in a positive way, we'll figure out how to get it together. Everyone means well on this team. It's all about communicating to each other. We talk often, but we just have to make those adjustments on the fly. If we do that, we'll be fine."